The risks and rewards of networking within your own organisation

Some managers may react badly if they discover someone has been cosying up to other departments

In theory boundary spanning is a good idea and can be positive for employees, their team and their wider organisation. Photograph: iStock

In theory boundary spanning is a good idea and can be positive for employees, their team and their wider organisation. Photograph: iStock

 

Networking within one’s organisation is often advocated as a way for career minded individuals to build their profile, but it’s not without risk. Some managers don’t like their reports developing relationships outside their group and may react badly if they discover someone has been cosying up – as they see it – to other departments, especially if it’s happened without their knowledge.

Known in management speak as “boundary spanning”, these inter departmental sorties describe situations where an employee seeks advice or knowledge from colleagues outside their immediate group as a way of building their personal information base.

In theory it’s a good idea and can be positive for employees, their team and their wider organisation as it can encourage learning flow, innovation, creativity and generate alternative solutions to problems.

In practice, some managers feel distinctly uncomfortable about it as they are afraid it signals a loss of control over their group. It can also be alien to those brought up with traditional vertical management values who don’t grasp the fact that today’s complex business environment might require more cross-fertilisation.

“Very often managers develop feelings of possessiveness over their group and its actions, leading to a strong sense of psychological ownership,” Eric Quintane, associate professor of organisational behaviour at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, told The Irish Times.

“This tends to happen for three reasons. Firstly, it’s because their own performance is typically linked with the performance of their team. Secondly, it’s because managers develop deep knowledge of employees’ skills, activities, goals and needs over time and, thirdly, it is because managers are expected to help employees reach their goals through their effective control and management.”

Boundary spanning

Quintane is part of a team, led by assistant professor Julija N Mell of the Rotterdam School of Management, that recently completed a piece of research looking at the potential pitfalls of boundary spanning. The research, involving roughly 300 participants mainly in the UK and the US, found that although turning to external colleagues for advice can be beneficial, some leaders don’t or won’t encourage it while others will go so far as to actively undermine any members of their team who cross departmental lines.

“The benefits of boundary spanning have been very well documented, but we know a lot less about the negativity it may generate which is why we undertook the research,” Quintane says.

“It’s an activity that employees like because it connects them to other colleagues and managers should like it because it increases the visibility of their team and may bring a different perspective that leads to better outcomes.

“However, some managers don’t appreciate a subordinate apparently representing their team to others because that’s typically their role and, if their team member returns with ideas that are in conflict with the manager’s, it can lead to an uncomfortable situation.

“Even if this feeling of losing control is perceived rather than real, it may have a psychological impact on the manager. They may feel that someone is moving away from them and this can cause them to react quite negatively.”

One way of outwitting any backlash is to stop it before it starts by keeping one’s boss in the loop. “If a superior is consulted in advance and subsequently kept well informed about the exchanges then this is likely to moderate any potential negative reaction,” Quintane says. “Boundary spanning needs to be well handled and to be legitimised as an activity through a company’s culture.

“If it is seen as normal, expected and acceptable at the top, and almost an informal company objective, this can help overcome line management or supervisor resistance towards it.”

Quintane adds that organisations need to educate employees about the potential risks boundary spanning could have for them and the importance of establishing a clear line of communication to their direct superior before they take off on any solo run.

Insecure managers

There will always be insecure people in leadership roles who try to control every aspect of their team’s behaviour, but most progressive managers are prepared to be less boundary sensitive, albeit with a caveat, as the sales manager for a large food manufacturing business explains. “I’m delighted to get insights or advice that makes us more effective, but I don’t like being blindsided. If someone tells me they’d like to get help or a different perspective from outside the department that’s fine. What I don’t like is having it dumped on me especially out of the blue or in a meeting with my boss.

“By all means get what you need to do your job better, but do me courtesy of running your thinking past me first. If nothing else, I may have a better insight into who is best placed to provide the answers needed in a particular situation.”

Quintane says the nature of work is such that managers inevitably develop attachments to their teams and departments. If this is threatened, they may become defensive with the temperature of their reaction likely to come down to individual personalities.

“There are some people you know will be absolutely fine with boundary spanning but not everyone,” he says. “That’s why employees need to be a little careful about it and where training can help managers as it can make them aware of the benefits but also of the potential trade-offs of the process and how to reconcile these two things.”

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